Terminally ill mum bravely chats about death – and it’s completely heartbreaking
Singing and ‘dancing’ in her hospital bed terminally ill Barbara Elton puts an incredibly brave face on the fact she is dying from cancer.
The pensioner jokes she has become ‘the pest of the ward’ and a "total nightmare" after doctors were able to get her pain under control.
Her honest approach to the inevitable is uplifting and inspiring for others but in a split second the humorous acceptance of her fate turns to tears in heartbreaking footage to be shown on the BBC.
Horizon: We Need To Talk About Death explores the moral questions about death that face not just the medical profession, but each and every one of us.
In the film, Dr Kevin Fong asks why we all avoid talking about death when the question of how we die is one that all of us must face.
Dr Fong meets medical professionals who are at the heart of these dilemmas, as well as people who are right now facing up to the question of how to die a better death.
Have you got an incredible story of bravery in the face of death? Email [email protected]
And one of those people is brave Barbara, who Dr Fong meets at St Christopher’s Hospice in London along with the centre’s medical director Professor Rob George.
We’re told she has advanced cancer and needs help dealing with the symptoms.
Speaking to Dr Fong Barbara explains: "The first thing any of us want, I think, is the pain sorting. That is a major priority. Please, please, please sort out my pain. You can’t get rid of it, I understand, but just sort it to the best you can, the best of your ability, which they did and they did really, really, quickly until in the end I was becoming the pest of the ward, all singing, all dancing, a total nightmare!"
In a very heartwarming, yet equally heartbreaking discussion, Barbara explains that she was ‘really scared’ because she thought hospices were about being ‘tucked into bed and never going out’ and described how, despite being surrounded by people who might be dying themselves, "it didn’t bother her".
She said: "I’m planning on going home now because I haven’t given up yet. You still have to face the prospect that you came in here and not ER for a particular reason and that is the reason you are…I shouldn’t talk loudly. "
Prof George says: "You can talk as loud as you want love."
Barbara: "…and that is the reason you are going to die. Now that has fundamentally changed everything in my life.
"It’s just the natural cause of things now. It might be me next. Tonight, it could be me. I hope not because you get favourites, don’t you?
"It could be Margaret, it could be any of use but we expect, we expect to go. I’ve never given it any thought before. I certainly don’t think when, I certainly don’t think why because that’s obvious. It has to be thought about, and why, I’ve got a dirty great lump which explains."
Barbara pauses and breaks down putting her hands over her face. Her daughter cuddles her and tells her "it’s fine, shhhh. It’s alright darling" as she sobs "I just don’t want to go".
Her daughter replies: "Well you’re not going anywhere except home with me for the short time."
Barbara says "I suppose so" before telling the cameras: "I’m so embarrassed."
Dr Fong simply tells her: "Please don’t be embarrassed."
Barbara’s bravery to talk on camera about a subject which so many of us avoid shows just what kind of person she was. Sadly, since filming Barbara has passed and we all hope she continued being an ‘all singing, all dancing’ pest of the ward right until the end.
The documentary to be shown on BBC Two this evening looks at whether we over-medicalise death and the final years of life at the expense of providing better palliative care that would result in a better quality of life and asks: Is it time to reset the system, and learn how to die a better death?
Prof George says: "A lot of emotional and physical energy goes into treatments as anything else. The investment physically in going through some kind of treatment does have a cost and that may be one of the reasons why the early involvement of palliative care appearing to give us a survival benefit, is that people can invest that energy in the things that matter to them, so they’re not wasting the energy coping with the treatments. They’re actually using the energy to complete their lives.
"It’s about concluding lives and getting the maximum out of what remains."
During the film we are also introduced to day patient Sheila Rickard who beams as she swings her special oxygen ‘trunk’ machine through the air while singing Nelly The Elephant.
"I come once a week. I have my hair done, my nails cut, keep smiling, keep seeing your visitors, stay as long as people want to see you, you’re ok. If you don’t, you’re stuffed!
"I shouldn’t have said that should I?
"I’m still naughty you see after all these years. I want to go out saying she was naughty till the end!"
When told by the film crew that it could be several months before the film is aired, she jokes: "Oh good grief! Better not be before I’m dead!
"You’d better get it out a bit quicker than that!"
Sadly, Sheila also passed away before getting to see the documentary. However, her husband was shown it before the transmission date this evening.
Horizon: We Need To Talk About Death: BBC Two 9pm
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